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The converging paths of Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury

Anthony Joshua
The intoxicating race between Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua intensifies to signal a golden era for heavyweight boxing, writes Ian Probert

AMONG those of us designated the unique responsibility of wading through the protean musings of Tyson Fury, there cannot be many who have not found themselves occasionally hoping that he might one day drown in his own words. On a simply unforgettable February night in Las Vegas, however, a choice few of those words floated to the surface of the MGM Grand and promised to forever knock us all off our perches. In administering a systematic beating to the most feared fighter in the heavyweight division, the befuddled stream of consciousness that has so often threatened to land the giant Englishman in deep water was duly dispersed with all the style and relative competitiveness of a battering ram bludgeoning a blancmange.

In the weeks leading up to the slaughter in question, Fury’s insistence that his intention was to knock out WBC champion Deontay Wilder had been routinely ignored by those who knew better. Conventional wisdom seemed to indicate the likelihood that the undefeated American would finish off a job that he began in round nine and almost completed in round 12 of their memorable first encounter. 14 months earlier, the venomous force carried by Wilder’s sweeping hooks and uppercuts had been able to turn a game of hide and seek into a Biblical epic that culminated in a resurrection which would have put Lazarus himself to shame. Yet despite the supernatural powers of recovery that Fury revealed that night in hauling himself out from The Twilight Zone, the smart money remained with his opponent. “These fighters have to be perfect for 12 rounds,” stated the champion’s irrefutable logic. “I only need to be perfect for two seconds.”

But what Deontay Wilder – along with the vast majority of scribes and soothsayers in attendance that evening – had failed to appreciate was just how special a fighter the man standing in the opposite corner happened to be. As misjudgements go, however, such glaring underestimation was to be forgiven. Fury himself would doubtless concede that for much of the 12 years he has spent as a professional prizefighter he has worked ceaselessly to construct an image which carefully conceals his true nature. Using a combination of charm and guile, of oafishness and impetuosity, of misanthropy and generosity of spirit, of callousness and compassion, Fury’s towering personality has so often reduced the prodigious talents that he undoubtedly possesses to mere bit players lurking in the shadows. In casting himself as boxing’s clown prince of hyperbole and ambiguity the boxer has successfully managed to pull the wool over most of our eyes.

Deontay Wilder vs Tyson Fury

In boxing, of course, such equivocation is not without precedent. In recent years there have been countless boxers who have attempted to fashion their careers according to the rulebook that Muhammad Ali himself only drew up as a result of groundwork laid down by others before him. No modern fighter, however, has arguably been quite so successful in doing so as the self-styled “Gypsy King”. Indeed, such is the degree of Fury’s sleight of hand that it took the near-death experience of the first Wilder fight for Fury himself to finally consider taking advantage of the not inconsiderable physical attributes with which nature has gifted him. 

And yet most of us who watched that enthralling rematch were still surprised when a 6ft 9ins man with the strength of a herd of oxen proceeded to do what a 6ft 9ins man with the strength of a herd of oxen really ought to have been doing all along. Namely, putting that size, power and reach to its correct usage in order to transform his brooding opponent from predatory assassin into disconsolate rag doll.

Perhaps it was the boxer’s surprise decision to replace his English trainer with the American Sugarhill Steward which may have encouraged Fury to start taking his bodily assets a little more seriously. Certainly, enough has since been made of the spiritual connection to Emanuel Steward and the fighting ethos which the great trainer engineered in several generations of splendid Kronk fighters. Alternatively, it may have been the blow to Fury’s voluminous ego engendered by the loss of his winning record which prompted the boxer to stop attempting to break something that was already fixed. Whatever the reason, the Tyson Fury who turned up on that memorable night bore scant resemblance to the fighter who in the past has all too often chosen to poke his tongue out at his own innate qualities.

There was no kissing of opponents on display. No infantile showboating intended to impress nobody but himself. And while the exhilarating spectacle of a man of Fury’s size and stature bouncing around a ring with the reflexes and co-ordination of a bantamweight is a sight to behold, such theatrics were abandoned in favour of a fight plan that left nothing to the imagination. Although Fury was unable to keep his puerile propensities completely under wraps – one hopes that the lapping up of an opponent’s blood is something that does not catch on with other fighters – the boxer was all business: A picture of savage beauty. An image of distilled brutality. A Tyson Fury who even the most optimistic among us could never have imagined they would ever bear witness to. Moreover, in the process of obliterating an opponent who had so recently taken him to within a razor’s edge of defeat, Fury managed to place himself not only at the epicentre of the heavyweight division but of boxing itself. 

Tyson Fury

“Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist,” a celebrated Spanish paint-splatterer once proclaimed. Although Pablo Picasso clearly preferred the company of bulls to bullshitters he could easily have been referring to our hero of the hour. For Tyson Fury’s assent to the upper branches of boxing’s oily tree is fated to remain an abject lesson in how not to do things. Moreover, his triumph comes at a time when all the stars appear to have mysteriously aligned in order to turn what seemed destined to become a forgettable, torpid era in the sport’s history into what may very well turn out to be one of its Golden Ages.

Fury’s unlikely irrigation of the heavyweight division’s barren landscape began at a time in which the longstanding dominance of Wladimir Klitschko was threatening to banish into boxing’s sweaty mosh pit such superfluous elements as excitement and thrills. So superior was the hard-punching Ukrainian’s skill-set to what the rest of the heavyweight division had to offer it seemed likely that defences of his multiple titles might stretch into triple figures. The yawning gap between Klitschko and his opponents had us all yawning.

When it was announced in 2015 that Tyson Fury had earned himself the right to become the latest of Klitschko’s horizontal bedfellows the news was understandably greeted with lukewarm enthusiasm. Although Fury was unbeaten and – as he does to this day – undoubtedly talked a good fight, the abiding feeling was that no amount of dressing up in comic-book superhero costumes would be enough to earn the Englishman victory. Nevertheless, one could not fail to be impressed by Fury’s chutzpah. Even if he seemed destined to end the evening gazing serenely towards the Dusseldorf stars, Fury was to be applauded for daring to wipe his slippers in the champion’s front parlour. After all, lesser men than Klitschko had already dumped Fury on the seat of his pants. 

The improbable win that followed was not for the faint-hearted. In a contest remembered more for the number of feints which Fury sculpted as a means of unbalancing his more experienced opponent, punches were a rarity (Fury earned the decision by connecting with an average of seven punches per round; Klitschko himself managed four per round). After 12 turgid rounds of stuttering pacifism, Fury’s attritional points win seemed to say more about Klitschko’s acquiescence to Father Time than the emergence of any new superstar. In managing, however, to pick the pocket of the Ukrainian veteran, Fury’s performance should have been lauded as one of the most impressive away games in the history of British sport. Instead, his triumph was clouded by ensuing events.

After Fury’s frantic celebrations had subsided and the last notes produced by the unexpectedly tuneful boxer had settled into the rafters of the ESPRIT Arena therein followed a protracted period in which the newly-crowned heavyweight champion of the world proceeded to collapse in on himself. Like the remnants of a super-nova, Fury allowed himself to succumb to the gravity of his own achievement. Instead of contesting a 2016 rematch with Klitschko, Fury suffered an injury and was drawn into a black hole of despair, characterised by protracted consumption of alcohol, excessive drug-taking and suicidal depression. By the time that the boxer was spotted buying 200 Jägerbombs for England fans at Euro 2016, the already larger than life character had ballooned in size. The chances of Fury defending his titles were beginning to look increasingly unlikely. But at least nobody could ever accuse this complex individual of not standing his round. 

While the front pages were busy reporting on Fury’s antics, the back pages were already turning their attention to a potential successor. Anthony Joshua was a public relations dream: young, handsome, self-effacing and 6ft 6ins of concussive punching power. It also didn’t hurt that Joshua carried with him the obligatory troubled backstory, as well as the 2012 Super-Heavyweight Olympic Gold Medal. Playing hare to Fury’s tortoise, Joshua rattled through 16 quick wins to earn himself a crack at newly-appointed IBF heavyweight belt-holder Charles Martin. It had taken Tyson Fury seven long years to get his mitts on the world title. In batting away the feckless Martin in April 2016, Anthony Joshua had managed it in just under three.

Fury’s descent into boxing’s footnotes seemed complete when Joshua was himself matched with Wladimir Klitschko a year later. At stake were three versions of the heavyweight title. Seventeen months had elapsed since the Ukrainian surrendered his belts to Fury and the former champion had not even allowed himself the luxury of a warm-up fight. It was, therefore, beyond the realms of possibility that the long layoff would bring about any improvement in the former champion. Electing to sidestep this inconvenient truism, the British media seemed determined to view the contest in ethereal terms. Conveniently forgetting that Tyson Fury had already done what Anthony Joshua was hoping to do, the fight was promoted as a symbolic passing of the torch; a chance for the young Briton to add his name to an illustrious heavyweight lineage inhabited by the likes of Louis, Marciano and Ali.

The resulting brawl quickly became what boxing writer Graham Houston is sometimes fond of calling an ‘up-and-downer’. Showing remarkably few signs of ring rust Klitschko rebounded from a heavy visit to the canvas to place his opponent in desperate peril during the middle rounds. The fight was everything the British public could have hoped for. By the time that a savage uppercut from Joshua in the 11th round had sucked the resolve from the older man you could have cut the wave of collective euphoria with a trowel. British boxing had found itself a brand spanking new hero. A clean-cut, square-jawed hero who was just a comfortable on the front cover of GQ as he was knocking people over in the ring. A hero who wasn’t fat. Or bald. Or lippy. Or off his head.

Anthony Joshua in Saudi Arabia

But even as Joshua was busy basking in the glow of mass market adulation, Tyson Fury was making his first tentative steps towards an eminently predictable ring return. First on his ‘to-do’ list was the small matter of shedding 12 stones’ worth of whale blubber that had been added to his torso courtesy of a pizza, vodka and 18 pints of beer a night diet. To facilitate this Fury hooked up with Englishman Ben Davison, a former amateur boxer turned trainer who had previously worked with middleweight champion Billy Joe Saunders. 

Three months after Anthony Joshua had eased himself to a fourth world title via a laboured points win over WBO champion Joseph Parker, Fury made his long-awaited return. After playing kiss chase for seven or eight minutes with a sacrificial lamb named Sefer Seferi, Fury finally got down to business. A couple of clubbing blows from the Englishman were all it took to persuade the overmatched Seferi to remain seated for the fourth round. As rehabilitations go it was hardly the Second Coming – indeed, a drunken scuffle in the crowd provided far better value for money than the fight itself. The boxer followed this performance two months later with an equally forgettable points win over an equally forgettable opponent. And then the unthinkable happened – Fury signed to fight Deontay Wilder.  

Of all the opponents that were being lined up to meet Anthony Joshua, the destructive American looked likely to provide the sternest test, not to mention the biggest pay cheque. Wilder had held the WBC version of the heavyweight crown since the beginning of 2015 and had been successful in separating from their senses all seven of his subsequent challengers with clinical ease. Indeed, Wilder’s knockout ratio ranks alongside the very best in boxing history. Logic clearly indicated that Tyson Fury, with only two farcical warm-ups under his still straining belt, was in no fit condition to place his chin within striking distance of such a fearsome puncher. That overactive cake hole of Fury’s was finally chewing off more than it could bite. Whoever had advised the Englishman to take the fight needed to sit on the naughty stair with a copy of A J Leibling’s The Sweet Science in his lap. 

When the dust had settled over the magnificent ensuing struggle, the small matter of who had actually won the contest quickly became unimportant. Certainly, nobody was complaining that the controversial split-decision draw meant that the public were sure to be treated to a second helping of Wilder-Fury. Moreover, Fury’s scintillating performance had succeeded in lighting a heavyweight touch-paper that had been dangling unattended since Lennox Lewis announced his retirement from boxing back in 2004. Suddenly there were a wealth of questions that needed to be answered. 

But if Fury had put a match to the heavyweight division, then what happened six months later just about blew the whole thing sky high. In June 2019 Anthony Joshua stepped into a New York ring to defend his titles against a podgy late replacement by the name of Andy Ruiz Jnr. All seemed to be going according to plan when Ruiz obligingly hit the deck in round three. However, as Joshua sought the denouement a left to his temple sent him skittering to the ropes. In common with Deontay Wilder, the power that Joshua carried in his fists had until this point managed to deflect any concerns that critics might have had in relation to the boxer’s punch resistance. Before the end of round seven, however, the glaring limitations of a confused and disorientated Joshua had been well and truly exposed. He was nothing like the world beater whom the glossies would have us believe. Boxing’s body beautiful, it transpired, was just as mortal and fallible as the rest of us. 

Moreover, it was of limited significance that housewives’ choice Joshua was able to recover his missing silverware six months later. The Briton may have achieved this feat via a landslide points decision over an even tubbier Ruiz Jnr but the manner of the victory did him few favours. Although it was to his credit that Joshua demonstrated an ability to fight at distance for a full 12 rounds, Andy Ruiz Jnr was clearly no Mike Tyson and certainly did not deserve to be treated as such. 

Joshua’s triumph, of course, is not to be mentioned in the same breath as those illustrious predecessors who also succeeded in regaining their titles. It is not yet the time to be ranking him alongside the likes of Ali, Holyfield and Tyson. In terms of its impact on the current heavyweight climate, however, the unmasking of Joshua’s vulnerabilities is rather akin to a tsunami in Scunthorpe. Suddenly there is a plethora of matches to be made. A multitude of intriguing arguments to be settled. The script may not have gone according to plan but the end result is utterly compelling.

Despite the efforts of the money men we now find ourselves on the verge of a new Golden Age in heavyweight boxing. Wilder-Fury III, Joshua-Wilder and Fury-Joshua are all fights that would sell out any venue in the world. Add peripheral players to the mix such as Oleksandr Usyk, Daniel Dubois and Dillian Whyte and we have the potential for the most scintillating era in boxing since the days of Tyson/Holyfield/Lewis or even Ali/Frazier/Foreman. As things stand, Tyson Fury, the man who refuses to obey boxing’s rule book, has to be betting favourite to prove himself the exceptional fighter of a potentially outstanding generation. In heavyweight boxing, however, things that stand have the disconcerting habit of falling flat on their faces when you least expect it.

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